Fernando Romero Enterprise (FREE) grew out of the architect’s Mexico-based Laboratory of Architecture (LAR) founded in 1999. Then last December FREE opened a second location in New York. “It’s a significant shift,” said practice director Armando Ramos, alluding to the firm’s increasingly multi-disciplinary approach to design as well as its U.S. presence. Romero, whose early career resume reads like a Who’s Who of architecture figures—Enrique Morales and Rem Koolhaas among them—has had a string of successes since starting his own practice in Mexico.
His interest in research and architecture act as a mirror for social, political and cultural currents, often informing books that feed into building projects. Although the concept building, a bridge-like museum with access from American soil and Mexican, stemming from his 2007 book, Hyperborders, never materialised in the Americas for complex political and land ownership reasons, it has manifested itself in a project in China that straddles a lake in a park.
The focus on context has remained a thread throughout other work. Indeed, rather than being tethered to an explicit ideology and signature style, FREE’s work is fluid with each building specific to its setting and circumstance. “It’s evolutionary and ideas are recycled,” said Sergio Rebelo director of design in the New York office. There may be no formal language, but the firm’s work is not directionless. The recently opened Museo Soumaya and Plaza Mariana in Mexico City, the plans for a network of hotel rooms in Brazil, and a masterplan for a cultural retreat in South Mexico are testament to this diversity. “I think for good or for bad we don’t have a dependency on a specific style,” said Romero. According to FREE director Armando Ramos, the firm’s dynamism derives in part from Romero’s experience working with European firms, including Alvaro Siza in Portugal and Jean Nouvel in Paris.
The office has not announced any U.S. projects yet, but there are allusions to a planned tower, and Romero is preparing an exhibition next year to showcase these plans along with the firm’s existing work to its new audience. Unlike FREE’s Mexico office that neighbors the Luis Barragán house, where Romero once put on an exhibition of interventions with the likes of Gilbert and George among others, the New York office nestles underneath the High Line in Chelsea, opposite Pace Gallery. Here, on the border of the area’s new, ongoing, and prospective developments along the Hudson, it’s a fitting location for a firm keen to make its mark in uncharted waters.
With a display of Mayan artifacts and history as well as contemporary art, the Tulum Museum plans to offer visitors to the ancient pyramids and ruins in the area an alternative experience of Mayan culture. “The building has been designed as an expression of Mayan culture using the pyramid theme,” said Rebelo. Organized into terraces, the visitors will see the exhibition as they ascend through the floors, which open out at points to vistas of the surrounding jungle and the ocean beyond. On the descent, visitors will be able to climb down the face of the museum itself.
Museo Soumaya is an impressive sight with 16,000 individually shaped steel tiles attached to a hyperbolic paraboloid steel frame, while its column-free tension ring roof is an engineering feat. “It was the first time something like this was built in Mexico: there is no expertise in doing a double-curved surface here,” said Armando Ramos. Instead of bringing on board well known contractors to solve this problem, FREE invested in local talent and developed a new skill set in the city. The final form was made from a 3-D scan of a hand-sculpted model and took two and a half years to build.
Plunging two and three stories underground, the mixed-use building sits opposite the Basilica at the base of the Virgin of Guadeloupe, one of the most visited religious sites in Latin America. The center, which opened in October, includes a crypt, a museum, market, and conference center to accommodate the pilgrimages. “The project is rational and economical,” said Sergio Rebelo of FREE, “And it had to be built fast.” FREE produced the vast multi-faceted block in less than two years. The four programs are divided by a path that forms a cross, whose proportions were taken from the emblem worn by Pope John Paul II
The private vacation house is based on the principle of a continuous material wrap. In plan, the house looks like a disc; a notion that FREE has explored in various projects. “Here, proportions, structure, program, and circulation are all the same element,” said Rebelo, “It’s a concrete slab that opens and closes.” The concrete structure, designed to fit into different contexts, performs more as an object more than a rooted home. FREE is experimenting with more resiliant materials using a mixture of coconut or other vegetable fiber with concrete to create similar continuous circular structures.
Bridging Tea House
Jin Hua Architecture Park, China
Brought together by artist Ai Wei Wei, 16 international architects have built a micro city of pavilions on the river Yiwu. Following ideas explored in Romero’s book Hyperborders, which examined borders around the world and the possibility of a museum bridging the United States and Mexico, Romero’s firm (called LAR at the time) designed a concrete truss tea house. Playing with notions of private and public, and open versus intimate spaces in the context of a bridge environment, the tea house hosts a restaurant as well as a public promenade.